When I started in radio, I spent a lot of time on the phone. While the songs were playing, I was answering the request line. I was single, and I enjoyed chatting with the young ladies. It was a dream job: getting paid to play records, and talk to girls on the phone.
I later realized I was familiar with only the beginning and ending of the songs. The rest of the time, I was on the phone. To make up for lost time, I have enjoyed researching the stories behind the songs. I’ve created a radio show called the Vinyl Express (Saturday and Sunday mornings from 10 until noon on Chattanooga’s 95.3 FM, or online at www.big953.com) to share those stories. Here are a few of my favorites.
Jim Croce was famous in the 1970s for his story songs. He died in a plane crash at the peak of his career. Before he left us, he entertained us with “Bad Bad Leroy Brown,” based on a guy he served with in the National Guard. Leroy went AWOL, but came back to pick up his paycheck, and got caught by the police. To hear Jim tell it, he soon looked like a jigsaw puzzle with a couple of pieces gone.
He also sang about Big Jim Walker in “You Don’t Mess Around With Jim.” You know the one: “You don’t tug on Superman’s cape, you don’t spit into the wind…” Prior to his recording career, Croce worked at a radio station in Philadelphia, selling commercials. After hours, he hung out at a pool hall, where he met a hustler named Big Jim Walker. I wonder what Leroy and Big Jim thought about their lives being played back on the radio?
We’ve all heard Creedence Clearwater Revival hits like “Proud Mary” and “Born on the Bayou.” John Fogerty wrote and sang them all, sounding like he just got off a riverboat in Louisiana or Mississippi. Actually, he grew up in California, and he never even visited the southern United States until long after he wrote those songs. He just used his imagination, about as well as anyone ever has.
Tina Turner’s signature song is “What’s Love Got To Do With It.” It was a perfect fit, and it sparked a career comeback for her in 1984. The truth is, Tina only got to sing that song because six other recording artists had turned it down. I’ll bet they’re still kicking themselves.
Tina made a good choice, but many other stars wish they could have a do-over. Janet Jackson passed on “How Will I Know,” which became a number-one hit for Whitney Houston. Whitney later said no to “Waiting For a Star to Fall,” so the songwriters recorded it themselves, and sold a million copies. Daryl Hall and John Oates told Dan Hartman they were too busy to record a song he wrote called, “I Can Dream About You,” so Hartman did it himself, and took it to the top. Ironically, most radio listeners thought it was by Hall and Oates anyway, but Hartman cashed all the checks.
It may also surprise you to know that many of our favorite tunes are not as well liked by those who sang them. Van Morrison’s “Brown Eyed Girl” has been around since 1967, and is fun to sing along with. However, Van himself never liked it, and has refused to sing it for the past fifty years. Elton John said he was forced to sing “Mama Can’t Buy You Love” to cash in on the 70s disco craze, but he never liked it, even though it became a huge hit. And Billy Joel calls “We Didn’t Start the Fire” the worst melody he ever wrote, but that didn’t stop millions of us from buying it.
Stevie Wonder may be the king of writing songs about real people. He wrote “My Cherie Amour” about his first love, and then two years later wrote “It’s A Shame,” when she broke up with him. He vented his anger at President Nixon in “You Haven’t Done Nothing,” and expressed his admiration for bandleader Duke Ellington in “Sir Duke.” When his daughter Aisha was born, he wrote “Isn’t She Lovely” about his baby girl. Forty years later, she sings it with him on stage. Isn’t that lovely?
Neil Diamond’s 1969 hit “Sweet Caroline” is one of the most-played songs of all time, but who is Caroline? He says it’s really about his then-wife Marcia, but “Sweet Marcia” just didn’t have the same ring to it.
Paul McCartney’s Beatles song “Yesterday” is a true classic. Perhaps the best move he ever made was changing the original title: “Scrambled Eggs.” Right melody, wrong words.
As Paul Harvey would say, listening to these songs is more fun when you know the rest of the story.